A Man for All Seasons


December 31st is the birthday of one of the greatest Americans of the 20th Century.

George C. Marshall was born in 1880 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.  He attended the Virginia Military Institute, graduating in 1901 and then competing for and winning one of the few coveted officer commissions reserved for non-West Point graduates.  In virtually every assignment Marshall stood apart from his fellow officers, exhibiting a keen military mind and outstanding leadership traits even as a junior officer.  One of his peers, observing the young Lieutenant Marshall direct what was essentially a regimental-level exercise in the Philippines commented to his wife “Today I watched the future Chief of Staff of the Army at work”.

Few people understand that the US Army didn’t just magically appear on the battlefields of WWII and decisively defeat the Germans and the Japanese.  The foundations of the American Army that won WWII were set years before Pearl Harbor by George C. Marshall.  It started in the trenches of WWI, where a dynamic young Marshall was assigned as the G-3 (Operations) of the 1st Division and later the Assistant G-3 of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  Marshall saw first hand the devastation and human suffering caused by a stalemated war that had devolved into static trench warfare, and the effect that poor leadership and poor military decision making had on units and individuals.  He learned those lessons well and carried them with him as he moved up in rank and responsibility.

Between 1918 and 1939 Marshall had a number of assignments that, in retrospect, were key to his success as Army Chief of Staff.  The first was his assignment as Aide-de-Camp to General John J. Pershing.  One of Marshall’s roles in this assignment was in helping General Pershing compile the Army’s official history of its involvement in WWI.  Marshall was able to spend time studying the broader issues that impacted America’s involvement in the war, particularly in the areas of training, leadership, military force structure and industrial readiness.  By this time Marshall was already thinking at the strategic level and he understood that the core issues of WWI had not been settled with the armistice.  He concluded that America would probably be at war again on the European continent within the next 30 years.

Marshall’s next key role came in 1930 when he was assigned as the Assistant Commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia.  Marshall turned the Infantry School into a laboratory, investigating and testing new tactics and force structures.  Marshall understood that mobility and firepower were the keys to success on future battlefields, and he put sharp young officers like Omar Bradley, Joseph Stillwell, Walter Bedell Smith and Matthew Ridgway to work revamping Army doctrine to reflect this new thinking.  Out of this work came the concept of the smaller, more agile triangular division with more organic firepower, motorization (the horse was about to be left behind), improved communications using the newfangled radio and the integration of armor and air support into a ‘combined arms’ concept.  What is fascinating is that advanced military thinkers in Germany were working along the exact same lines, developing the concept of ‘Blitzkrieg’ – the lightning war spearheaded by fast moving armor forces.

After the Infantry School Marshall was assigned as Commander of the 8th Infantry Regiment in Georgia.  During this assignment he was also appointed as the district military commander for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  Most military professionals resented being ‘stuck’ with the CCC responsibility by President Roosevelt, but Marshall understood that the CCC would provide vital experience to Army junior officers and NCOs.  In future wars involving mass mobilization officers and NCOs would need experience in routine tasks like receiving, housing, training, feeding, moving, caring for, accounting for and employing large groups of young men.  The CCC role provided just this experience, and Marshall embraced it.

Marshall’s next assignment (1933 – 1936) seemed to him, and his peers, as banishment to the wilderness.  A petty and vindictive Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, had Marshall assigned as the senior advisor to the the Illinois National Guard.  Apparently MacArthur was upset at Marshall’s support of the CCC program (something MacArthur hated and fought endlessly with Roosevelt about).  The politically connected Illinois National Guard wanted a talented Regular Army officer to be assigned as advisor, but National Guard advisor positions were viewed by the Regular Army as something second-tier officers got stuck with.  MacArthur saw this as an opportunity to placate the Illinois politicos and send Marshall a message.  In typical Marshall fashion he made full use of the assignment, evaluating the National Guard from the inside, developing a keen understanding of their training and readiness and mapping out the political sub-structure that supported the National Guard systems in most states.  This understanding would be critical when Congress federalized all National Guard units for integration into the Regular Army after Pearl Harbor.

After the National Guard advisor position Marshall was promoted to Brigadier General and went on to command the 5th Infantry Brigade in Washington State and more CCC involvement.  By 1938 the threat of war in Europe was again looming and Marshall’s talents were finally recognized at the national level.  He was pulled to Washington D.C. to head the War Plans Division.  In 1939, on the recommendation of the outgoing Army Chief of Staff General Malin Craig, Marshall was promoted to four star rank and appointed Army Chief of Staff by President Roosevelt.  I consider it one of Roosevelt’s most prescient moves that he recognized Marshall’s talents and promoted him over dozens of other Army general officers with more seniority.

Finally, George C. Marshall’s experience and skills were turned to what he had been anticipating, yet dreading, since 1918 – preparation of the US Army for global conflict.  With the foundations in place and solid support of the President, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Marshall set in motion his plan to prepare the Army for modern war.

The new Chief of Staff understood better than anyone that the next war was going to be fought by young Americans who were not just citizen soldiers, but they were the sons and husbands of American citizens and as such deserved to be led by the very best.  Yes men would die, but they should not die needlessly or because of a failure of leadership or training.  It was the Army’s responsibility to provide the very best officer and NCO leadership and training possible.  Towards that end, Marshall cut a wide swath through the Army, firing or retiring hundreds of senior officers who were too old, too out of shape or just plain incompetent.  (One politically dangerous move was his firing of virtually all National Guard division commanders soon after their divisions were federalized.  He realized from his National Guard advisory experience that these commanders were little more than political hacks and were not up to commanding divisions on the modern battlefield.)  At the same time Marshall reached down into the Regular Army officer ranks and pulled up dynamic young men he knew could perform.  Virtually overnight talented officers like Omar Bradley, Mathew Ridgway, Mark Clark, Walter Bedell Smith and Dwight Eisenhower found themselves jumping rank and position on the fast track to senior command or staff positions.  As an example, in early 1941 Omar Bradley was promoted directly from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General, bypassing the rank of Colonel.  A year later he wore two stars and was commanding the 82nd Infantry Division (before it was designated an airborne division).  If General Marshall knew you and you measured up to his exacting standards you could expect fast promotions and increased responsibility.

General Marshall also revolutionized the Army machinery that created small unit leaders.  Prior to 1940 you could still become an Army officer by direct political appointment or even election or acclimation by members of the unit (this is how Harry Truman got his commission in WWI).  While this system only existed in the National Guard system at the time, it was still viewed as a viable method of obtaining a commission.  Marshall put an end to all that and standardized policies and procedures for obtaining officer rank in the Army.  He also knew the Army’s demand for unit leaders at the platoon and company level would be almost insatiable and the existing commissioning programs, West Point and ROTC, would not meet the demand.  Marshall also knew that the Army already contained a vast pool of potential officers – the enlisted ranks.  Every day thousands of young men were volunteering or were being drafted who had some college experience and would make excellent officers.  Marshall directed the establishment of the Officer Candidate School (OCS) program at Fort Benning.  Following a curriculum developed by General Omar Bradley the OCS program took talented and educated enlisted men and turned them into Second Lieutenants.  This program was so successful that it became the primary commissioning source for the US Army in WWII – far surpassing the numbers of officers generated out of West Point and the college-based ROTC programs.

Even as Army Chief of Staff, General Marshall never lost focus on or sight of the individual soldier.  Immediately after Pearl Harbor his advisors notified him that no more silk would be imported due to the war with Japan (the world’s major producer of silk).  Silk was now classified as a strategic material and it was up to Marshall to determine how the Army’s share of it would be used.  There was a lot of demand for silk – for use in uniform neckties, socks, flags, pennants, even as powder bags for artillery ammunition – and it was clear the available supply would not last long.  Marshall directed that the available silk be reserved for just two uses – as parachutes and as award ribbons.  The General understood that award ribbons were important to the soldier.  They were (and still are) the Army’s visible recognition of service and valor, and those little bars of silk would end up meaning a lot to the millions of soldiers just entering military service.  Award ribbons made of dyed cotton or wool look like junk compared to silk, and Marshall knew that.  The soldier deserved the best, and only silk would do for this important purpose.  With the development of nylon for use as parachute canopy material early in the war virtually the entire Army stock of silk ended up being used for the production of award ribbons.  General Marshall knew it would be important to the common soldier, so it was important to him.

George C. Marshall, like Cincinnatus, wanted nothing more than to retire and live out the rest of his life as a gentleman farmer and historian.  On November 18th 1945 he retired as Chief of Staff of the Army and he and his wife fled to their small estate in Virginia.  The most powerful military figure in the world finally found peace and pleasure in puttering around his house, painting shutters and planting shrubbery.  Less than ten days later he received a personal phone call from President Harry Truman asking him to become his ambassador at large and travel to China to try to untangle that growing mess.  Marshall’s sense of duty would not allow him to say no, and he was launched on his second career as diplomat, Secretary of State and father of the Marshall Plan which financed the reconstruction of Europe and ensured that Western Europe remained free of Soviet domination.

George C. Marshall died on October 16th, 1959 at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.  I have been told that at the announcement of his death grown men, many of them with stars on their collars, broke down and cried.

In my estimation George C. Marshall is the key figure in the story of America’s success in WWII.  General Marshall is the reason we fielded the excellently trained, equipped and led armies we did between 1942 and 1945.  More than any one person he was the architect of America’s victory in WWII and shaped the free world that came after.

He was the indispensable man.  The man for all seasons.

– Brian

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